UTK coach Bruce Pearl yells during the game against UTC at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville on Friday evening. Staff File Photo by Angela Lewis / Chattanooga Times Free Press
CHARLOTTE, N.C.—If you were lucky enough to be one of the 68 schools that began this week participating in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, you no doubt hoped your pregame news conference would be about the game and the game only.
Oh, it might be OK to describe your Lady Gaga ring tone, the two planes, one train and three taxi cabs your Aunt Edna endured to watch you play, or which of your teammates’ tattoos you like best, but mainly you want to talk about your season. You want to discuss what you hope will become that championship season.
Thanks to University of Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton, those topics never came up when the Volunteers met the media here Thursday morning in advance of this afternoon’s game against Michigan.
Because Hamilton took to a Knoxville radio station Wednesday afternoon to discuss coach Bruce Pearl’s fragile future in terms he had not used all season, the coach and his players spent their 30 minutes with the national media mostly defending Pearl rather than explaining how they’ll defend the big M.
“We’ve done a lot of soul searching about the direction of our [basketball] program, and we’ll continue to do that,” Hamilton told WNML-AM. “We’ll decide after we’re out of the NCAA tournament what direction it is that we’re going to go next.”
Which direction the questions went Thursday morning was about as unpredictable as day following night. Seven of 11 questions asked of the players concerned Pearl, and whether or not they feared for his job after he lied to the NCAA about secondary recruiting violations.
More dramatically, the first nine questions for the coach focused on his AD, rather than Wolverines coach John Beilein’s complex offense or perplexing zone defense.
“The announcement came as a bit of a surprise,” Pearl said. “I hope this is not going to detract at all from [my players’] experience.”
His players said all the right things, including senior post Brian Williams, who noted: “The coaching staff has done a great job keeping the outside world outside.”
Added UT wing Cameron Tatum, the only one of five Big Orange players at the podium who are fully expected to return next season: “I fully expect Coach Pearl to be back next year. But we can only control what we do between the lines and focus on the preparation for our games.”
Exactly what Hamilton was hoping to control with his comments is hard to say. If he wanted to make sure they became so depressed they’d lose to the Wolverines — a la the football Vols falling to Wyoming five days after Hamilton announced that football coach Phillip Fulmer would be dismissed — he might be sadly mistaken.
The Vols seemed as unified and fortified as they have in months, perhaps determined to prove their AD wrong.
Beyond that, a good deal of the public appears to be turning on Hamilton, as witness this e-mail from South Pittsburg’s Dale Swafford to Tennessee governor Bill Haslam: “I feel as the Chief Officer of the State of Tennessee, it is time for you to step in and take control of the University of Tennessee. Mike Hamilton as the athletic director has fired the most successful football and baseball coaches the university has ever had and replaced them with initial bad hires. It is evident by the comments he made in a recent interview that the same thing is going to happen with the current men’s basketball coach, Bruce Pearl. If you will lean an ear to fans ... the first person that needs to be replaced is director Hamilton.”
Indeed, at first glance it is hard to find a single, solitary miniscule reason to support Hammer-brain’s words. Even as Pearl attempted to take the high road — “I was the one who broke these rules, not Mike Hamilton, not our chancellor and not these student-athletes” — it seems one of dumbest decisions in this colossally dumb soap opera.
In fact, if Hamilton really did this without thinking about what he was saying, it might be UT that needs to go in a different direction regarding its athletic director.
Or maybe Hamilton was merely taking one for the administration, running the idea up the flag pole to see who saluted and who spit.
A final theory: With jobs already opening up at Arkansas, Georgia Tech, North Carolina State and Oklahoma — and more sure to follow — perhaps Hamilton wanted to send a message to the coaching fraternity that before Coach A goes to N.C. State, he might want to consider Tennessee.
Does that take more gray matter than Hamilton has displayed this week? Perhaps. At the very least, he’s already soured what should have been a warm memory for the Vols’ players, which seems a somewhat unforgivable action.
And let’s not forget — Pearl was Hamilton’s meal ticket, his ace in the hole. No matter what else had gone wrong — Lane Kiffin, Lane Kiffin, LANE KIFFIN!!!! — Hammer-brain could always point to Pearl for proof that he knew what he was doing.
But whatever he’s done or hasn’t done this week to himself or the university he represents, the UT AD has taught Pearl a valuable lesson: With friends like Hamilton, you don’t need enemies.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...